‘Chatbots’ are coming; next stop Facebook? – USA TODAY

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SAN FRANCISCO — Will there be a bot for that?

That is the question on many lips ahead of Facebook’s annual software developer conference next week in San Francisco.

Analysts expect Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to open up Messenger’s platform to “chatbots” and launch an online store for them. TechCrunch reported Thursday that Facebook will help software developers build “chatbots.” Facebook declined to comment.

Chatbots are chat robots— interactive software powered by artificial intelligence with an assist from humans — that are designed to simulate human conversation, like a more intelligent version of Clippy or Siri. They are popping up on messaging services where they help users book a flight, order take-out or hail a ride.

Their rise comes eight years after Apple unveiled its online shop for mobile apps. Some observers have speculated the bots could one day leapfrog apps as a dominant means of digital communication and commerce.

“It’s possible,” says Gartner Research analyst Brian Blau.

U.S. companies are tapping into the popularity of chatbots in Asia, where messaging services such as WeChat help users schedule doctor’s appointments, shop for shoes, play games or the lottery and send money to friends, all from within the app.

Messaging app Telegram launched a bot platform and store last summer. Kik launched a bot store this week. Last month during its annual company event in Tokyo, Line said it would soon give software developers access to its chatbot API.

A growing number of start-ups are hawking bots, including Operator, which wants to rule bot commerce by offering curated collections of everything from cashmere throws to alarm clocks. Sunglasses shoppers can chat with a sunglasses emoji.

Microsoft talked up bots last week as a next wave of innovation, a few days after one of its bots “Tay” had to be shut down after it began spouting racist language it learned from users on social media.

“Bots are the new apps,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said during a keynote at his company’s Build developers conference that laid out a vision for the way humans will interact with machines. “People-to-people conversations, people-to-digital assistants, people-to-bots and even digital assistants-to-bots. That’s the world you’re going to get to see in the years to come.”

Forrester Research analyst Julie Ask says bots could relieve a “huge burden” that apps can put on consumers.

“Apps force consumers to orchestrate getting the content and services that they need. Consumers have been taught to download apps and then poke around among them and in them to get stuff done,” she said.

Bots, she says, are more “natural, like having an assistant,” whom you can chat with and ask to shoulder tasks such as ordering a new lipstick.

“For them to be good though, and for consumers to adopt, they have to be more convenient than using an app, making a phone call, etc.,” Ask said.


Bot technology comes as analysts predict messaging could one day eclipse social networking as the globe’s favorite online pastime. Some 2.5 billion people have registered to use at least one messaging app, according to technology and strategy consulting firm Activate. By 2018, Activate expects that number to reach 3.6 billion.

“Messaging will be the most widespread digital behavior,” says Michael Wolf, founder of Activate.

Facebook is placing a major bet on messaging as the next major platform, envisioning its popular messaging app Messenger as a central hub for daily life and its interactions. On Thursday, Facebook announced Messenger had reached 900 million monthly active users. Its other messaging app WhatsApp reached 900 million users in September.

Chatting with businesses will be a big part of the next wave of messaging, says Messenger boss David Marcus. He sees chatbots one day supplanting other forms of communication with businesses, such as phone calls and web chat.

“You have so many different channels to communicate with services and businesses and all of those things are imperfect, but they all bring something. What we have been able to do is bring the best of each of these methods inside one conversation that happens in Messenger,” he told USA TODAY last month.

Messenger is also experimenting with M, a digital personal assistant that uses a combination of artificial intelligence and human intervention to handle tasks such as booking restaurant reservations or buying flowers. Google Now and Microsoft’s Cortana also offer smart digital assistants.

The new “hyper-personalized style of communication” of chatbots have caught the attention of brands, Blau says.

While businesses have many ways to reach customers, “it’s much different to have a conversation with customers and understand who they are and what they want,” he said. “This is what Facebook is going after with connecting businesses to customers through Messenger.”

Blau cautions it’s early going for chatbots and much will depend on how chatbots develop and how consumers respond to them.

“There is a lot for Facebook to gain by offering a broader array of services on top of Messenger. Their challenge is in convincing brands to buy into it and use it as a proper channel,” he said. “I think it will take Facebook a while to build up the feature set and get the adoption.”

And, if the bots are coming, businesses will have to make sure they behave appropriately.

“I don’t know in the industry that we know how to do that yet,” Blau said.

Follow USA TODAY senior technology writer Jessica Guynn @jguynn

‘Chatbots’ are coming; next stop Facebook? – USA TODAY

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